The Big U and Journalists

I finished reading The Big U (Neal Stephenson’s first novel) tonight. Stephenson himself describes this as “a juvenile work,” and now that I have finished it, I can see where he’s coming from. Don’t get me wrong, I still enjoyed it, but the story becomes a bit unhinged towards the end. At the beginning of the book, it’s obviously a satire, but as the story progresses things begin to slow down a bit and Stephenson starts to take the satire over-the-top in an attempt to compensate. Each chapter in the book corresponds to a month of the school year, starting in September and ending in May. By the time you get to November/December, things slow down a bit, and in March things begin to get a bit more absurd… this leads to a sudden (absurd) explosion of events in April, followed by the conclusion in May. Again, I enjoyed it, but I can see how some people would be turned off by the sudden turn of events. Sure, it’s ridiculous, but if you can get past that, there are still a few gems along the same lines as the ones I wrote about a few weeks ago

Spoilers ahoy, if you care…

So at the beginning of April, an all out war breaks out in the Plex (for those who don’t know what the plex is, see my last entry). By “all out war,” I mean a literal war, with guns and bombs and plenty of deaths. Various groups of students, administration officials, and the bizzarre Crotobaltislavonians (yet another of Stephenson’s fictional nationalities) have fought it out and carved up their own spheres of influence. Things have calmed down a bit, and the narrarator is making a trek towards the library to recover a fellow professor’s research notes (this is an absurd motive, but everything is so surreal at this point that I was willing to let it ride). To reach the library, they must cross several “stable academic blocs” including the journalism bloc. The journalists have negotiated several treaties with various other blocs in exchange for safe passage and weapons for their guards. In exchange for an interview and allowing a camera crew to follow them, our narrarator’s group is able to make it through the journalism zone. The narrarator has some questions:

“You’ve got a hell of a lot of firepower. You guys are the most powerful force in the Plex. How are you using it?”

The student shrugged. “What do you mean? We protect our crews and equipment. All the barbarians are afraid of us.”

“Right, obviously,” I said. “But I noticed recently that a lot of people around here are starving, being raped, murdered — you know, a lot of bum out stuff. Do those guards try to help out? You can spare a few.”

“Well, I don’t know,” he said uncomfortably. That’s kind of network-level policy. It goes against the agreement. We can go anywhere as long as we don’t interfere. If we interfere, no agreement.”

“But if you’ve already negotiated one agreement, can’t you do more? Get some doctors into the building maybe?”

“No way, man. No fucking way. We journalists have ethics.”

Heh. Again, this book was published in 1984. Was that considered over-the-top satire at the time? Seems rather tame by today’s standards.

Stephenson has a reputation for bad endings that just sort of happen without warning, but that doesn’t really happen here. To be sure, it’s not a great ending (like the rest of the book, it’s slightly absurd as it hinges off of one of the groups’ fanatical religious devotion to a giant neon sign), but it was better than expected. Overall, I’d say the book is worth reading for die-hard Stephenson fans and maybe geeky folks who don’t mind that he goes off the deep end about 200 pages in…

3 thoughts on “The Big U and Journalists”

  1. Have you, by any chance, read Jennifer Government? I haven’t read any of Stehenson’s stuff, but the passage you’re describing there reminds me of what happens in Jennifer Government. In JG, almost pure capitalism rules the day. People take surnames of the corporation that they’re employed by. The title character is the novel’s version of a cop or FBI agent- she works for the government (which has to run based solely on donations and money they can raise themselves, since taxes have been abolished). Anyway, there are several scenes of corporate warfare. Like, armed agents storming another corporation’s offices and killing their employees or a McDonald’s with missile turrets blowing up a Burger King.

    It’s a very funny, if slightly absurd, book.

  2. I’ve heard of Jennifer Government, and I vaguely remember playing an internet game where you could create your own country (The Royal Kingdom of Tallmania) and every day it gave you a new challenge. Your population and relationships with the world would change based on your answers. Or something. I wonder if that’s still out there.

    In any case, if you haven’t read much Stephenson, I’d highly recommend Snow Crash and Cryptonomicon. Snow Crash is shorter and sounds somewhat familiar to Jennifer Government… except it’s got mafia-run pizza delivery, samurai swords, sumerian mythology, and lots of geeky computer/network stuff. It’s a classic. My favorite is Cryptonomicon, but I think that has a more limited appeal due to its length (900+ pages)…

  3. Ah, yes. You’re thinking of

    I’m pretty sure it’s still there. That was pretty cool, except that the number of problems was pretty limited, and it began to cycle them rather quickly.

    I’ll have to check those out, as I not only haven’t read much Stephenson… I think I’ve read *no* Stephenson. =D

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